Navy: women are joining the crews of VIRGINIA-class attack submarines

Let me start this post with a couple of our household’s famous naval sayings:

“You are such a freakin’ nuke.”
— My spouse, USNA ’83, to me, USNA ’82, many times over the last 30 years.

“You hear her? Someday soon you could be a freakin’ nuke too…”
— Me to our daughter, NROTC ’14.

The Secretary of the Navy has formally announced the news that the Chief of Naval Operations (a submariner) has been quietly sharing with submariners for months: women officers are joining the crews of VIRGINIA class submarines. Enlisted women are joining soon after that. It’s expected that women will be joining the rest of the OHIO class submarine force as well.

That news led to an interesting conversation with our daughter.  It’s possible that there might be far more women midshipmen interested in joining the submarine force than there would be billets for women submarine officers.  The competition could be brutal.

Let’s see if we can put some numbers on that speculation.

My fellow nukes are smirking right now. They know there won’t be much competition. They know that it’s hard enough to find men willing to join the submarine force, and research has shown many times that women are the smarter gender. If the assignment officers already have to bribe the guys with large buckets of money just to join (let alone to stay in) then why would they think that the women would be eager to join too? Equality of choice is long overdue, but does that make the submarine force a good choice? As always, you have to ask why the military is being so nice to you. “Nice” as in $25,000/year bonus money.

Nukes are an analytical bunch, and that carries over to the subject of financial independence. For example, there are about 75 posters on who have identified themselves as military veterans. At least five of those 75 posters (me included) have gone to sea on a submarine. When I left the Navy, the submarine force was less than a tenth of the Navy’s personnel and the Navy was less than a quarter of the total strength of the U.S. military. By those fractions, no more than two of the military posters on should have been submariners– yet we’re more than twice the expected population. Admittedly a small sample, selection bias, math geeks, and other disclaimers. But financial analysis attracts nukes like flames attract moths.

Nukes do a lot of math. I don’t know why it was such a big deal in nuclear power school and again in the submarine force, but we were taught to do all sorts of math in our heads– “mental gymnastics”. Ironically on a submarine we’re surrounded by expensive MILSPEC fire control systems and dozens of personal computers. (Plus our cool calculator wristwatches.) But junior officers are expected to correctly determine a watchstander’s radiation exposure or the range to a target. They have to do it in their heads, and at least as fast as the executive officer. If they can’t consistently be both correct and fast then they may lose their privileges to take a shower– let alone watch the evening movie. Oh, and they’ll have the midwatch too.

I can guarantee that the subject of women crewmembers is being discussed in dozens of submarine wardrooms and watchstanding spaces now, and the entire submarine force is trying to quantify the estimates. So let’s do some of every nuke’s favorite retention analysis: billet math. How many women officers will the submarine force need in order to comply with the SECNAV and CNO announcements?

I’m going to pull my numbers from public sources. All of this data is (or should be) available to everyone. If you have better data, please correct my estimates.

Each submarine crew has (so far) three women officers.  Only two of these officers will have nuclear training and the potential for an entire career in the submarine force.  The third billet comes from the Navy’s Supply Corps for just one submarine tour of 2-3 years.  Most of the Navy’s new women officers will not be eligible to join the Supply Corps, so we’ll focus on each sub’s two nuclear-trained billets.  There are 18 OHIO-class submarines, and each submarine has two crews.  There are also eight VIRGINIA-class attack submarines in the water or on the builder’s docks, and attack submarines have only one crew. Each of those VIRGINIA crews will also probably have three women officers (one from the Supply Corps), since that’s how many are berthed in an officer’s stateroom.

That’s 44 submarine crews and 88 women officer submariner billets. 16 of those billets are already filled with women (the first four OHIO-class submarines), leaving 72 billets yet to be filled.

Junior submarine officers typically have a three-year tour on their first submarine, so a third of the officers in those billets will roll ashore every year. Assuming that there are at least 88 billets for the next few years, then every year 29 of them will open up.

The Navy needs at least 72 women officers to show up on those submarines beginning in October 2014, and another 29 every year after that. Let’s assume that new VIRGINIA-class submarines are commissioned as quickly as OHIO-class submarines are decommissioned, and that wardrooms stay at three women officers (instead of six or more). The reality is that these numbers are minimums and will grow, however, let’s assume that they stay steady for a few years.

But wait– before those nuclear-trained women submariners can walk across the brow, they have to finish 15 months of training: six months in Nuclear Power School classrooms, another six months qualifying at watchstanding on shore-based military nuclear reactors, and three more months at Submarine School partying studying the rest of the sub’s systems.

The graduation rate of this pipeline is not 100%. It’s not even 90%. In fact, 30 years ago a few of my classmates actually ended up hospitalized for treatment of stress-related exhaustion. Hopefully, Millennials are made of sterner stuff than us Baby Boomers (good luck with that!).

I’m going to assume that only 80% of the officers make it through the training. The military is pushing through a large drawdown, billets are tight, and nobody wants to be perceived to be cutting any slack for the women students.

When attrition is 20%, then those candidate numbers are now 90 in October 2014 (which means they start training in summer 2013) and 36 every year afterward. The real question on the assignment officers’ minds is: From where are these women officers going to appear?!? They need to find the first 90 in the next six months, and mostly from the college Class of 2013.

Women have been at military service academies since 1976, and today women make up approximately 20% of the graduates. I’m going to assume that the U.S. Naval Academy will graduate roughly 1000 midshipmen per year for the next few years, and the women from other commissioning sources (NROTC, OCS, NUPOC, the surface fleet, and a handful of other acronyms) will make up another 1000/year. At least 800 of that second thousand will be NROTC.

At this point, the assignment officers might heave a sigh of relief– problems solved. 200 women officers will be coming from USNA and another 200 from other sources, so that’s plenty!

Well, not so fast. USNA Class of 2010 had over 800 male midshipmen, and only 127 chose the submarine force.  (The linked article gives the impression that the submarine officers wish they’d enticed more into the service.)  I’m not sure how many men volunteered from NROTC or the other commissioning sources, but USNA usually has at least half of the total number of officer submariners from all sources.   Let’s assume that 130 men volunteer from USNA (out of 800 men) and another 130 from all the other commissioning sources (out of another 800 men). That’s about 16% of the total of all officers who are volunteers for the submarine force, not voluntold.

I was a military training instructor for nearly eight years. I don’t know about you civilian professional teachers, but I only want eager volunteers in my classrooms. I can just imagine what will happen when a “drafted” officer shows up at nuclear power school and makes it their mission to convince the chain of command that they’re only suited for aviation… or for the Marine Corps.

The assignment officers expected all of those sources to commission 400 women.  If only 16% of those 400 women officers volunteer to be submariners then the candidate pool shrinks to… 64.

32 of the 64 volunteers would come from USNA, another 25 or so from NROTC, and the rest from those other sources.  We already decided that women are generally smarter than men, so 64 seems like a pretty optimistic number.

If I was an assignment officer, I’d be just a tad worried about filling those initial 72 billets with 90 candidates from the Class of ’13. I’d need a bunch of extra volunteers from the Class of ’14 to catch up, and I might need a few extras from the Class of ’15 as well. Even after I caught up I’d still have to steadily recruit another 36 per year. It wouldn’t take much to screw up my plans for the subsequent classes, either, if volunteers are consistently fewer than the billets.

If I was a male or a female hard-chargin’ engineering major with a decent GPA at a top-ten college, with impressive military leadership performance (perhaps owning a ballistic missile submarine deterrent patrol pin from my midshipman summer training aboard a sub whose CO gave me top grades)… then I’d feel pretty confident that I could get picked for submarine duty. If I thought that the assignment officers were already sweating the quota then I’d be downright optimistic.

My daughter is smarter than me. (My shipmates are smirking again.) She’s also more mature, more organized, with better leadership skills, and better study habits than I had at that age. (She’s also much more sober than I was at that age.) Three decades ago I managed to stumble through the nuclear training pipeline. I lurched through the qualification gauntlet on my first submarine, and (much to my XO’s surprise, let alone my own) I actually qualified for command. Frankly, I’m a little jealous of my daughter’s opportunity to go to sea on one of the Navy’s newest submarines, perhaps out of Pearl Harbor. I think she’ll do a lot better at it than I did.

Maybe my daughter’s question shouldn’t be “If?” she’ll make the cut for the submarine force. Maybe the question should be “Why?!?” she’d want to join the submarine force.

That’s a question only she can answer.

But while she’s waiting for the chance to volunteer, she won’t slack off.

And she’ll keep saving as much as she can for her own financial independence.

[Disclaimer: If a retired geezer can come up with these numbers, I hope you active-duty experts can provide better ones (with public links when possible). I’m standing by these numbers until we get more credible data. Let’s see how close my mental gymnastics come to the actual 2013-14 numbers.]

Related articles:

Join the military to get rich and retire early?: the rest of the story
Will the military pay off your student loans?
Sea story: Simulate submarine life at home
Getting rich in the submarine force

About Doug Nordman

Author of "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" and co-author of "Raising Your Money-Savvy Family For Next Generation Financial Independence."
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